Not always are trips worry-free and joyful. At least, that's what I thought when my mother, brother, and I embarked on a trip to my parents' native country of Poland to supposedly enrich my not-so-perfect Polish and to explore parts of the country that we've never seen before. In the back of my mind, though, I knew that the main reason we were going was to spend time with my grandfather, who had cancer. Nobody wants to go on a trip to say goodbye. As much as I knew that I had to go to spend time with my Dziadzo Stasio, I was afraid of seeing him in such a weak state, causing myself to not recognize the beauty of Poland but the frailness of my grandfather.
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Immediately after arriving at my mother's brother's house in the rural outskirts of Rzeszów, my strong facade that I'd been building up on that interminable 8-hour plane ride completely crashed when I hugged my grandfather. Without being able to pull myself together, I ran upstairs and locked myself in a bedroom. With a combination of extreme jet lag and anxiety, I sniffled myself to sleep.
How could I endure these next three weeks, going on voyages with my grandfather knowing that behind his joyful face he's hiding pain and discomfort? How could I come back in future and not be reminded of my grandfather’s horrible illness? When I awoke, the rest of my family, after tons of hugs, kisses, and "WOW you've gotten tall!" exclaims, arrived and gathered on the deck, where the sun was finally setting, making the endless acres of raspberry fields reflect hues of pink and purple. Suddenly, there was laughter in the air, calmness in our hearts, and fullness in our stomachs. Dziadzo, who was quietly sitting next to me, put his hand on mine and smiled a smile that magically took away my sadness. That one smile took away all negative energy, telling me that although life is often unfair, it’s also is the best thing we know.
I found myself keeping that memory of Dziadzo with me throughout my travels in Poland. Everywhere I went, I saw him. I saw Dziadzo's liveliness and joy in the colorful buildings scattered throughout the town square of Wroclaw. I saw his strength and character in the once mighty stone-walls of the Ogrodzeniec castle. I saw his funny stubbornness in the portly Polish men arguing over parking in Warsaw. I saw his curiosity in my brother when we wandered through the underground, mysterious Wieliczka salt mines. I saw his daringness in myself when I bravely took a huge bite into the surprisingly delicious Sandomierz favorite of rye bread topped with lard, onions, and pickles. I saw his composure in the ancient walls of the Wilanov palace and the serene river behind its stunning gardens. I saw the brightness of his eyes in my cousins’ faces as they dug into the rich gelato on the streets of Krakow.
I learned that just like this trip to Poland was bittersweet, life is, too. Horrible things like cancer and other illnesses are inevitable, so it's what we choose to do with our lives that make them unforgettable. We can choose to mournfully dwell and grieve over loved ones, or we can reminisce on touching memories, striving to find loved ones in our daily lives. With a tearful embrace, I said goodbye to my grandfather for the last time, but on the plane ride home, I realized that he'd NEVER be gone. Dziadzo Stasio's spirit will always be alive, soaring through the wonders of Poland.
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